The Twelve Hour Nightmare From Hell

I am jumping ahead of myself to share a story while it is still fresh in my mind (which it is because it is hard not to keep reliving it).  I will get back to our regularly scheduled adventures (of the fun kind) soon.  Unfortunately due to the nature of the story, there will not be an abundance of pictures (and none from what you would probably really like to see as it unfolded).

On July 24th, we left our anchorage in a beautiful bay on the island of Lopud.  We set sail earlier than normal in order to get to our final stopping point in Croatia where we would clear customs and immigration and make our way to Montenegro.  As we traveled down the coast, we briefly hovered outside the beautiful city of Dubrovnik and it’s magnificent ancient walls in order to take pictures from this unique perspective.  From there we continued our way down to the town of Cavtat.  It is in this town that you have to clear out of Croatia before continuing on to Montenegro since they expect you to get out of their waters by the fastest means possible (and they watch you on radar to make sure you do!). We arrived by late morning, found a spot we liked for anchoring, and dropped the hook.  We spent several hours swimming and hanging out…..no problem.  Later we took the tender into town to see about clearing out with the harbor master before going to the customs dock in the morning.  It took us a bit of wandering around to finally find the harbor master who then informed us that we could not check out with them the day before but needed to tie up to the customs dock on the day of check out and then come see them before clearing customs and immigration.  From there, we wandered over to find the customs dock and office in order to be more efficient in the morning.  The dock requires you to med moor (drop your anchor out in front, get it set, back up to the wall and then tie your back end to the wall).  This looked like all kinds of fun since the wall was only big enough for two or three mega yachts or 5-6 normal size boats.  The wall also curves slightly pretty much insuring the strong possibility of crossing anchors with someone.  We returned to the boat feeling pretty good that we had a full understanding of the procedures for tomorrow.

Bucket list moment sailing past the Ancient walls of Dubrovnik
One of the best maintained walls from the ancient world in existence

We spent the rest of the day swimming and hanging out with friends who had joined us 3 days earlier.  As the evening rolled around, the bay became very rough with swells.  We spent the next several hours pitching around, sometimes a bit violently.  By nightfall, the swell had really died down and the winds had begun to pick up.  We headed to bed around 10:30 and did a final check of several forecast models. 

Sunset over the Croatian archipelago from the Cavtat anchorage. Looks calm right?
25 knot gust….oh how we missed those as we were blasted with 40 knots plus a few hours later

All looked well.  The wind continued to pick up, causing the boat to creak and groan.  Dan checked our anchor alarm regularly to ensure we were safely hooked in and not dragging.  At about 1:15 a.m, we heard a rather loud bang, and almost simultaneously, the anchor alarm sounded.  We were dragging at a very fast pace.  We scrambled on deck just as someone in the anchorage started blasting their horn and another person yelling to us.  The wind was howling at 30-40 knots and we were within a few meters of hitting a trimaran that had been anchored in the same vicinity.  Dan quickly fired up the motors, and I ran to the front to start getting the anchor up.  The water in the bay had breaking waves from all directions.  The entire by was a buzz of activity as nearly every boat had broken free and were scrambling to avoid either other boats or the shore.  We later learned that a 50 foot catamaran had actually hit another boat when he dragged.

With the engines gunned in forward gear, we managed to avoid hitting the boat we had come so close to.  We motored around trying to find a place to re-anchor in the pitch black.  The water churned violently and sent spray up as the wind blew across it.  I will forever be grateful that our friends, Tim and Aline, were there to help us.  While Dan drove the boat, we made several attempts to anchor but could not get it to set for more than 1/2 hour or so.  Despite using spotlights to find land masses and obstructions in the water, it was impossible to see what lay underneath us each time we dropped the anchor.  Each time the anchor was pulled back up, it required both Tim and I to use the boat hooks to stab through the weed and clay that caked the anchor.  Aline kept the light wherever we needed it and scampered back and forth between Dan and I to relay messages (the wind was shrieking so bad that neither one of us could hear the other despite yelling as loud as we could).  While all this is happening, many other boats are doing the same thing.  Everyone circling around, trying to avoid other boats, and find a safe place to get anchored.  We were reaching the point of giving up and just heading out to sea to motor around until daybreak.  We made one final attempt (this was now our 4th or 5th) and dropped the anchor.  We let out 150 feet of chain (well over the 7:1 storm ratio) and waited anxiously.  It was now 4 a.m.  Tim, Dan and I sat in the cockpit for some time waiting and watching.  So far, so good.  Tim eventually headed down to bed to try and get a little sleep.  Dan and I opted to stay up on deck as the wind was still gusting in the 20-30’s.  Around 7 a.m., I headed down below to try and get some sleep and Dan slept on deck.  We weren’t taking any chances this time.  Unfortunately, it was one of those times when there was no possibility to try and capture this on video given the speed and danger of the situation as it unfolded.  To put a little humor into a situation that still has a little traumatized….I will never again sleep in a nightshirt while at anchor.  As it should be, the situation was all about protecting the boat and the people on board.  Unfortunately, in winds this high, my stupid nightshirt left me regularly flashing the entire anchorage as it threatened to blow completely overtop of my head.  Now, here’s the stuff MY nightmares are made of!  Hopefully, everyone was too busy with their own situation to notice 🤦‍♀️😬

After a short two hours of sleep, I rousted Dan so that we could get moving over to the customs dock and get ourselves checked out.  We had wanted to be there right at 7 a.m. when the harbor master opened, but after last night….that wasn’t happening.  We hustled to get underway and rounded the bend to join a number of boats already circling and waiting for their turn at the dock.  Now mind you, we are all on boats, so there no “line up” and you have to rely on the courtesy of others to respect who has come before you.  Yeah right.  As in land life, some people just don’t care if it’s their turn and will happily cut you off to take their place ahead of you.  To add to the fun, the wind gusts were still high and blowing on our side (this makes for a real good time trying to anchor and tie up…..especially when you are coming in next to a multi, multi million dollar yacht with full crew…..ugh.  Instead of giving you time to get yourself tied up, the other boats are coming in on top of you which severely limits your maneuverability!  It took us 3 attempts to get the damn anchor set and finally secure ourselves.  Poor Dan was dealing with all this chaos on 2 hours of sleep!  We finally got settled, and Dan was off to take care of all the legalities.  Ironically, that part went really quick and smooth.  I give a huge shout out to the harbor master staff and customs/immigration staff for their helpfulness and pleasantness, but their docking situation SUCKS!!!  They need a bigger and less chaotic customs dock given the amount of traffic that is forced to check in and out of this location…..or at least let the boaters anchor and come in!  Afterall, no one even looked at our boat.

Everything was done, and it was time for us to get going.  Of course, that did not come without it’s fun as well!  I told you it was a 12 hour nightmare!  Several of the boats that insisted on racing in and not letting others get settled first managed to cross their anchor chains.  This required a person on one boat to swim his anchor and figure out how to move it off of someone else’s without dislodging the other guy.  When the next guy went to leave, his was crossed as well.  Since we had come in before all of these boats, we waited for them to untangle since they were surely all over top of ours (remember that crosswind….our anchor was no longer right in front of us).  The harbor master ended up boarding this one big power boat (this guy had been a total ass….trying to cut everyone off and throwing his hands in the air when the harbor master signaled him to stand down until we all got settled) and made him lift his anchor and move off the dock so the rest of us could leave free of his anchor.  At this point, we are ready to move very quickly to avoid any collisions due to the gusty conditions.  Right as we are about to release the final line, a family on a paddle boat cruises in front of us waving!  EVERYONE on the dock was yelling at him to get out our way NOW!  We luckily extricated ourselves from the mess without incident.  We were finally under way to Montenegro with a big sigh of relief.  At this point, I was ready to say good-bye to Croatia.  As I mentioned before, we are still somewhat traumatized by the whole experience, but we have talked through it numerous times with our friends who helped us every step of the way, and some new friends who had been in the anchorage with us (turned out they were the ones sounding the horn to get everyone up….we will forever be thankful to them for that).

Cavtat – southernmost port in Croatia. And the jumping off point for Montenegro
Customs Quarantine dock -AKA “Q- dock”

Anyway, we have learned a great deal from the experience and how to better prepare ourselves in the future.  This is the worst weather situation we have experienced out on the water.  With warning, we always head for the safety of a marina.  This came out of nowhere for us.  We have slowly been restoring our faith in our knowledge and abilities and appreciate the friends who have helped us process the trauma of the experience.

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Judi Biss
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Judi Biss

You told the story with great clarity and made it quite visual to all, no need for pictures! Glad you got through it safely!